A Progress Energy spokesperson reports that the coal-ash storage ponds at its Asheville plant are closely monitored and safe. Following the Dec. 22 catastrophic failure of a retaining wall at a giant waste pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil coal-fired power plant west of Knoxville, Mountain Xpress inquired about the condition of such ponds in Western North Carolina.
“Our ash ponds are operating within all local, state and federal regulations,” says Progress Energy spokesperson Scott Sutton. At its Asheville Plant—located along the French Broad River at Lake Julian—the company has two storage ponds for coal ash, created when coal is burned to create electricity. One pond was created in 1964, when the Lake Julian plant first opened; this pond was closed in 1982, when Progress Energy built a second pond. The inactive pond, Sutton further explains, is now used as a wetland site that filters wastewater from the plant. It has a 90-foot earthen dam. The active, 50-acre pond, which can store 450 million gallons of coal ash, has a 95-foot-high earthen dam. Neither pond is lined; but current regulations do not require such ponds to be lined.
Sutton also reports that Progress Energy employees inspect each dam monthly; once a year, an independent engineering firm inspects them; and every five years, an independent firm conducts a comprehensive inspection. Progress also participates in a voluntary groundwater-monitoring program: Every six months, the company collects samples, tests them and reports the results to state officials. (Xpress is reviewing the latest reports.)
“We try to re-use as much of the coal ash as possible,” Sutton adds. In 2007, coal-ash material was used for expansion projects at the Asheville Regional Airport. Other common uses for the material—which neither state nor federal agencies have declared hazardous, Sutton points out—is commonly used in concrete fabrication and such consumer products as bowling balls. When coal is burned, the remaining noncombustibles have the texture of sand and contain a mix of elements, such as silica and heavy metals (including arsenic and mercury)—“all the things that you will find in the earth’s crust,” says Sutton.
Sutton also emphasizes that the Asheville plant’s ponds are significantly smaller than the one that collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant, which released more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash, according to revised estimates. The sludge flooded 15 homes in a 400-acre area west of Knoxville. The ashy sludge contains such toxins as mercury, arsenic and lead— all of which could seep into the ground and flow downriver. It was being stored in an unlined 40-acre retaining pond at the Kingston plant
The Asheville dams, furthermore, “are built to withstand 100-year-floods,” he adds. “The first thing we did, after the Tennessee spill, was to pull our data [to] see if there’s anything we’ve missed. [When] the TVA investigation is done, we will apply the lessons learned, if applicable [to the Asheville plant]. Progress Energy is absolutely committed to the safety of our employees, the community and the environment.”
— Contributing editor Margaret Williams